Meet the Expert day at Dundee Science Centre, 10 September 2016, part of The Crunch series of public events on sustainable agriculture and food, showcased two of our topics – Roots of Nutrition and Grain to Plate.
It was hands-on for the younger visitors – they donned lab coats, peered into test tubes, felt grain and rolled dough. The not quite so young shared experiences on topical issues of food and health.
The team from the Hutton were based in the darkened auditorium, partly to enable slideshows to be viewed on computer screens, but there was enough light to get some images (above).
Roots of NutritionMain themes are that humans need at least 18 mineral nutrients and thirteen vitamins; but many diets lack iron, calcium or iodine, or the Vitamins A, C or D, causing ‘hidden hunger’ and poor health. Plants provide most of these minerals and vitamins; they take minerals from the soil and make vitamins in their tissues. There are direct links therefore between soil, plants and health. Peoples’ wellbeing can be improved by good soil and crop management. Science can breed crop varieties that take up minerals from low concentration in soil. Gardening and farming can provide the wide range of foods that between them contain all the necessary minerals and vitamins.
Grain to Plate Main themes are that grain (or corn) crops, mainly barley and wheat, and later oat, were first brought here by migrants over 5000 years ago. Grains have sustained most people and their animals since then, at least up to the second half of the last century when imported grain began to replace home-grown. Today, most of our cereal carbohydrate is grown in other places. Oats is the only one grown, processed and eaten locally. It also needs less mineral fertiliser and pesticide than wheat. Yet more cereals could be grown locally for human food. Examples of bread made from barley, wheat and spelt were on display …. and here ‘s an idea for the future – bread made from insect flour! How would agriculture look farming insects instead of sheep and cows!
On the day …..
Roots of Nutrition: Philip White, Paula Pongrac and Konrad Neugebauer. Grain to plate: Gill Banks, Lauren Banks, Geoff Squire.
Thanks to Aisha and all at the Science Centre for organising the event.
With Dundee Science Centre, the James Hutton Institute is contributing to a range of outreach activities in 2016 as part of The Crunch, and initiative headed by the UK-wide Association of Science and Discovery Centres and supported by the Wellcome trust.
Our exhibit at a community-run event in Baxter Park Dundee on 28 July 2016 was called – Feel the Pulse – a display of beans and peas, which along with lentils are known as ‘pulses’ (images below).
Why pulses? They yield a highly nutritious, plant protein that can be grown without nitrogen fertiliser because the plants themselves fix nitrogen gas from the air into their own bodies. Nitrogen is essential for plant growth, but in its mineral form (from bags of fertiliser) can be a serious pollutant, contaminating streams and drinking water.
Once, peas and beans were widely grown and eaten, but the arrival of industrially made nitrogen fertiliser about 100 years ago and the ready import of plant protein from other countries caused pulses to decline as crops.
Yet today, pulses are widely acclaimed for their benefits to health and the environment. The field bean Vicia faba crops above were grown locally without nitrogen fertiliser. They also offered a habitat and refuge for insects and small animals.
Is there a way to turn the tide – to farm more locally-grown cereal and legume produce, use less mineral N and support a cleaner environment.
We believe there is but one of the first things to do is to increase awareness of the benefits of peas and beans and similar products.
Our exhibit – Feel the Pulse – shows some of the things that are being done, such as finding types of peas and beans suited to the local conditions, comparing the nutritional value of different pulses and finding new pulse-based products for the market, for example bean bread and bean beer, both made from field bean flour.
Sponsored by Dunkeld and Birnam Historical Society and the Dunkeld and Birnam Community Growing Group (The Field) at Birnam Arts, 23 November 2015, 7.30
A survey of crops and croplands – from domestication 10,000 years ago, through the arrival here of settled agriculture in the late stone age; through the developments of bronze and iron to the ill years of the 1600s; through the major improvements in the 1700s that gave hope; through the technology of the 1900s that eventually removed the threat of famine; to the subsequent choice between sustainability and exploitation, and society choosing the latter; to the present state of soil degradation and reliance on imports for food security; and to a sustainable future, perhaps … with some tales along the way of life and farming when horse was the quickest way along the A9.
Settled agriculture is a recent experiment in human history. Domestication of crops from wild plants, as recently as 10,000 years ago, produced the wheat, barley, maize and rice that we know and eat today. Maize and potato were domesticated in the Americas and could not cross the Atlantic at that time and rice was too far away in Asia, but wheat, barley and oat came by land and sea across Europe to the north Atlantic seaboard where around 5000 years ago, they found a welcoming soil and a mild climate.
The grain crops enabled a settled society. In good years, there was food to last the winter, giving time to think and make things. Stability allowed people to learn the skill and enterprise to trade in the new technologies of bronze and iron that came across Europe centuries later. Waves of migration, Celts and Romans included, caused no great change to the basic type of grain and stock-farming of the region. A neolithic farmer, teleported here for the day, would recognise our crops and farm animals (except neeps and tatties which weren’t here in their day).
Yet time, ignorance and oppression took their toll: centuries of misuse, the principles of soil fertility unappreciated or ignored. Soils exhausted and yields dropping to subsistence levels. Agriculture unable to cope with the run of poor weather in the late 1600s? Starvation and famine.
Then came the age of improvement after 1700 – lime, fertiliser, turnips and other tuber crops, the levelling of the rigs, removal of stones, drainage, new machines for cultivation, sowing and harvest, the global search for guano, the coordinated management of crop and stock – benefits that allowed outputs to rise in the 1700s, but not yet to the point where famine was memory. That came later. It was not until the technological developments of the 1900s – industrially made and mined fertiliser, pesticides and advanced genetic types – that the threat of hunger was finally dispelled from north-west Europe.
But these same technologies opened the way for excess and instability. They encouraged the breaking of two established links that had held cropped agriculture since it began here.
The first was that grain and other crops no longer relied on grazing land or grass crops for manure. Grain could be grown more frequently, on more area and with more inputs – eventually encouraging a phase of intensification after 1950 that increased yield but in many places to the detriment of soil and the wider environment, and now with a diminishing return from inputs.
The second was that local production became separated from local consumption. The increasing wealth and global trade of the 1900s – the legacy of the industrial revolution – meant that people no longer relied for their subsistence on what was grown in local fields. This second decoupling became so great that by the 1990s, all cereal carbohydrate eaten in Scotland, except oat, was grown elsewhere and imported.
There are some big questions therefore. Will intensification continue to degrade soils and even start to drive down output? And is our food supply now too vulnerable to external influence – disruption by global terrorism, variation in world cereal harvests, future phosphate wars and volcanic eruption?
So what of the future! Yields are still high. Agriculture is diverse and diversifying in its margins. But threats to soil and food security will increase and need to be tackled. Technology alone will not solve the problems.
James Hutton Institute, Dundee UK
The speaker illustrated his talk with some ancient cereals and a bag of grain, all grown in the Living Field garden.
The quotations from Andrew Wight’s journals from his travels by horse are now available free online:
Wight, A. 1778-1784. Present State of Husbandry in Scotland. Extracted from Reports made to the Commissioners of the Annexed Estates, and published by their authority. Edinburgh: William Creesh. Vol I, Vol II, Vol III Part I, Vol III Part II, Vol IV part II, Volume IV Part II. All available online via Google Books.
His notes on bere, oat and flax in the region of Dunkeld and Birnam will appear in a later article on this web site. Any further enquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org